Mike Steinberger discusses the best wines for the lowest prices.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
June 19 2008 5:43 PM

Grape Nuts

Oenophiles ask Mike Steinberger about finding great wines at good prices.

Slate wine columnist Mike Steinberger was online on Washingtonpost.com on June 19 to chat with readers about the best wine values: very good wines for less than $15 and truly excellent wines for less than $150. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Arlington, Va.: Just last night, my boyfriend was bemoaning his inability to find a good, reasonably priced (say under $20) red zinfandel to enjoy. Any suggestions?

Mike Steinberger: I do have a suggestion. In my last piece for Slate, about $15 and under wines, I mentioned the 2006 Cline Ancient Vines Zinfandel, which I was able to pick up for $12. I thought it was very nice; the bouquet called to mind a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and while it was packed with ripe fruit, it was neither overly alcoholic or jammy, two traits that one finds, unfortunately, in a lot of Zins these days. Have your boyfriend try the Cline.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: In both the under-$15 and under-$150 lists, you chose only one domestic wine. Are American wines ever a good value, or should thrifty drinkers always stick to imports?

Mike Steinberger: Good question. In the $15 and under category, I don't think there is a lot to choose from among American wines, which I think is very unfortunate and something I hope will change. I recommended a few domestic wines in my $15 and under piece, but other countries seem to do a lot better at that price point.

As for the $150 and under article—the criteria were a little different, in that I was extolling wines that I think are benchmarks in their respective categories (be it grape, region, style, or some combination thereof); that I think consistently rise to the level of greatness; and that represent excellent relative value (relative being the key term here—$150 is clearly not cheap). The Ridge Monte Bello certainly fits that description, but I don't there are too many other American wines that do. That is not to say that there aren't other superb American wines; there are plenty of them. If you want to try a benchmark Zinfandel, try the 2005 Ridge Geyserville, which I think is a fantastic wine (I will admit: I am a Ridge devotee). It goes for about $35.

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Alexandria, Va.: I read your article on Slate and admire your willingness to come online today and defend calling wines that cost as much as $150 "bargains." My question concerns how much today's wine prices represent run-ups from increased demand. I often have read that after wines become popular—either a vineyard or a particular grape/region (California and Chardonnay)—prices increase for no reason other than taking profits. For example, I've read in the Wall Street Journal that it's very hard to find decent Chardonnay under $20 now when it was simple to get under $10 four years ago. How much is that increase is profit-taking, and how widespread is the practice?

Mike Steinberger: Great question. First, though—I definitely didn't intend to suggest that $150 is a bargain. Clearly, it is not. The point of the article was to compile a list of truly great wines that offer excellent relative value, and $150 struck me as a not-unreasonable cut-off point when we are talking about splurge wines.

As to these price spikes, increased demand is certainly the driving factor. Take a region like Burgundy. The wines are generally produced in very small quantities, and with more and more people around the world acquiring a taste for these wines and the means to pay for them, prices are rising (quickly). For Americans, we are getting hit on two fronts: We are facing more competition for the most sought-after wines, and the weak dollar is also hurting us.

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What are good sources: ... for finding some of the wines you mention? Are they usually available, or does one have to search them out a bit? I think this question goes more toward the upper-level wines with less production.

Mike Steinberger: The source all wine geeks seem to rely on is Wine-Searcher.com. It is a terrific service.

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New York: Why discuss price? Blind tastings from time immemorial have conclusively shown that price has nothing to do with an enjoyable glass of wine, no? And let's get away from all this talk about "angular structure," "leather" and "zinc." None of this is helpful to the consumer.

Mike Steinberger: Blind tastings often show that quality is not necessarily related to price. Inexpensive, unheralded wines do indeed upstage the big guns from time to time. But I don't think a wine like the Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet acquired its reputation by accident, and I personally wouldn't have too much faith in a wine critic who couldn't distinguish between the Ridge and, say, Two Buck Chuck.

As for the language wine writers use, all I can say it is something most of us wrestle with all the time. Finding a meaningful way of describing wines is a real challenge. I hope my notes are helpful to readers, and I'm open to any and all suggestions as to how I might make them more useful.

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Washington: I find that decent Pinot Noir is the hardest type of wine to get inexpensively. Very hard to find one under $15 that is worth buying.

Mike Steinberger: Rest assured: You are not alone. Pinot Noir is a very ornery grape, and even in Burgundy, where it thrives like nowhere else, it yields more misses than hits. The $15 and under category is particularly challenging with Pinot; at that price point, I think you can do a lot better with other grapes.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Would you agree with this statement (or how would you correct it): Finding a good everyday wine for under $10 is difficult. At $10-15 your chances are much better of finding something decent. Above $15, every bottle should be pretty good.

Mike Steinberger: I would indeed agree with the first part of that statement. Under $10 has become a challenging category; there is a lot more to be found in the $10-$15 range. I wish the second half of your statement were true. Unfortunately, paying over $15 is no guarantee that you are going to get a good wine. It all depends on the producer, and that's where critics come in; our job is to steer you to the right names.

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Boston: When looking for interesting, cheap reds (usually $10-$15), I tend to avoid Australian/New Zealand wines (or wines from elsewhere) with cutesy animals on the label, and steer toward Italian or Spanish wines (Nero D'Alvola, Garnacha). How good or off-base is this as a strategy?

Mike Steinberger: That's an excellent strategy. Spain has become probably the best source of inexpensive quality wines; in particular, look for wines imported by Eric Solomon Selections/European Cellars. Solomon brings in a bevy of excellent, inexpensive Spanish wines. Italy, too, is a great source of high-quality, lower-priced wines.

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Fairfax, Va.: Great timing for this chat! I'm looking for one red and one white for my fall wedding. We'd love to stay under $10 per bottle if possible. We're not usually very picky about the wine we drink, but we want to be sure to have something very drinkable that goes with a varied menu. Thanks!

Mike Steinberger: Let me give you two names. An excellent producer in the Beaujolais region of France, JP Brun, produces a terrific Chardonnay (it is labeled Beaujolais Blanc, but it is made of Chardonnay). The last time I checked, it was still selling for around $10 a bottle and is a superb wine. It is imported by Louis/Dressner, a company based in New York. I don't know how widely available the wine is in the DC area, but definitely worth looking for (and if you can't find it, ask your local wine shop to try to get it for you).

As for a red: If you want to keep it under $10, I would go with Altos Las Hormigas, which is a Malbec from Argentina. In my $15 and under piece, I cited this wine; I was very impressed by it, and for $9, it is a great value. Hope that helps, and congratulations on your wedding.

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Carrboro, N.C.: How valid is that strategy, then: following importers rather than (or in addition to) producers, regions, countries or grapes?

Mike Steinberger: We are lucky in the United States: We've got a bunch of very quality conscious importers who have filled our shelves with sensational wines from around the world. If you feel like drinking something French, Spanish, or Italian but don't quite know what you are looking for, using the importer as your guide is definitely the way to go. Check out my $15 and under piece, which was posted on May 14th; at the end of the article, there is a list of importers whose wines are worth seeking out.

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Local wines?: I'd like to cut down on my carbon footprint. Are there any inexpensive wines from Virginia that I could substitute for my faves from Chile, South Africa and Australia?

Mike Steinberger: I can't say I've had a lot of wines from Virginia. However, a few years, I did a piece for Slate that included tasting some Virginia wines, and I was reasonably impressed with what I tried from Horton, Barboursville, and Linden. I think Thomas Jefferson would be quite pleased by the progress Virginia is making.

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Seattle: I dunno Mike, I have been reading your Slate columns for a while, and you're pretty European in taste and outlook. What'd the West Coast ever do to you?

Mike Steinberger: Am I that obvious? I do have a Euro-centric palate; it was cultivated on French wines, and Bordeaux and Burgundy remain my touchstones. That said, there are lots of wines from the West Coast that I adore. At this point, I should be building a shrine to Paul Draper: I am in awe of what the man has achieved up on his mountain. I had lots of good things to say about Oregon Pinot Noir in the piece I did last Thanksgiving, and as American winemaking continues to progress (and let's remember: it's still early days here—the French have been at this for centuries), there are going to be many more domestic wines to praise.

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Oregon: Why the $15 cut off? I know of plenty of pinot noirs that are tasty (and local to Oregon) but they generally start at $15. That being said, there are a lot of bargains to be had under $20 or $25.

Mike Steinberger: I chose $15 and under because that struck me a fair cut-off point for "everyday" wines. People might treat themselves to $35 Pinots on the weekend; most of us aren't drinking $35 wines Monday through Friday. And you are absolutely right: There are lots of excellent wines to be found in the $15-25 range.

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Livermore, Calif.: Please don't give away the wine geek secrets! If people want to drink great wine, they should have to work for it. There are only a few thousand cases of Trimbach's Cuvee Frederic Emile for the whole world, roughly the same as total production for, say, Romanee-Conti. Only a small spike in demand quickly will make it absolutely unaffordable for everyday upper-middle-class drinkers (and journalists, for that matter).

Besides, I'm not convinced that the "greatest" wines in the world are to everyone's taste. Only by familiarizing yourself with lesser examples can you taste the nuances that separate a merely delicious wine from a unforgettable experience. Thanks always for your vibrant storytelling about a subject that inexplicably attracts unwarranted dryness.

Mike Steinberger: Thanks very much for the kind words; much appreciated.

These are indeed wine geek secrets. And I was certainly aware, in writing the article, that I was potentially creating problems for myself and other grape nuts. What you say is absolutely true: A small spike in demand is all it takes to clean the shelves of a wine like the Cuvee Frederic Emile or—even more to the point—the Dauvissat Preuses. So, yes, I recognized that I was possibly shooting myself in the foot (actually, I did that by forgetting to burn those damn receipts!). But Slate isn't paying me to keep secrets—my job is to steer people to wines that I think merit their attention, and at all price points.

You are right: "Greatest" is a subjective judgment, and a wine that I think is great might not thrill someone else. As I pointed out in the article, a person accustomed to rich, buttery California Chardonnays may find the Cuvee Frederic Emile much too austere and mineral-driven for their taste. That said, I am reasonably confident that the list I compiled won't elicit too much dissent from other critics and other wine geeks—I think these wines are all pretty well recognized as being among the greats.

Your point about developing taste—I think you need to taste both kinds of wines. But it is through tasting wines like the CFE, or the Taittinger Comtes, or the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, that one establishes benchmarks. Someone tasting these wines might decide that they are not worth the money, and that's fine. But I think the extra quality that these wines offer does shine through, and these wines do have a way of becoming mental yardsticks.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

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Washington, D.C.: You're also a much more cultivated wine drinker than the average consumer ... I am not sure I would taste the difference between a $15 and a $50 bottle of wine. I like wine, and I can tell when something is AWFUL, but I guess my real question is why should I ever pay more than $20 if I don't have much of a palate?

Mike Steinberger: Don't sell your palate short. If you know when something is awful, you've got a discerning palate. If you can swing it, try some pricier wines (good ones—just because a wine costs $45 doesn't mean it's good) and see how they compare to less expensive bottles. If you don't find any qualitative difference, consider yourself lucky—you'll be saving yourself a bundle of money. If, on the other hand, you do detect a jump in quality, welcome to this very expensive but immensely pleasurable hobby.

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Wilmington, Del.: Thanks for using a local place for your $15 and under piece—I'll be checking it out tonight with your article. For local(ish) wines, I was wondering if you had checked out the Finger Lakes wines? There are a few vineyards there that I love. Lucas vineyard has a great inexpensive ($17/18) Pinot Noir. There's another one—I think it's Stone mill or Old mill or something like that—that has a light, very dry reisling. California isn't the only wine-producing region in the U.S.!

Mike Steinberger: The Finger Lakes has produced one iconic figure: Hermann Wiemer, who really put the region on the map and who was renowned for his work with riesling. He is retired now, I believe, but the winery still exists, and I'm sure it is still producing lovely Rieslings.